Here’s how to plan a vigorous 10-mile hike in Crete that leads to a spectacular beach.
What springs to mind when you think of Greece? Beaches? Blue-and-white villages? I bet hiking doesn’t make it anywhere near the top of the list.
Yet Crete, Greece’s largest island, absolutely challenges that. It has some of the best hiking trails in the country, including Samaria Gorge. To many people’s surprise, this beautiful gorge is the second-largest in Europe. A part of Crete’s White Mountains, the gorge and its surroundings once served as a lifeline for Crete, supplying much of the island’s fresh water.
The gorge hike is ideal for those who want a challenge and a glimpse into history – with a cherry on top. At the heart of the gorge is the deserted village of Samaria, first inhabited in the 1300s. Given how hard it is to access, it served as a strategic safe haven through conflicts and wars. Yet it’s what at the end of the hike provides the ultimate motivator.
The point-to-point hike starts at a 1200m (3937ft) altitude in the mountain town of Omalos, continuing right down to sea level at the black-sand beach of Agia Roumeli on Crete’s southern shore. In the summer, the Mediterranean beckons for a celebratory post-hike swim.
The 16km (10-mile) hike takes about six to seven hours to complete. My strong suggestion is doing some planning to continue your journey from Agia Roumeli and stay on one of the southern coast’s beach towns. My top pick is Loutro, a cove that’s petite and inimitably picturesque. Loutro is home to some of the clearest waters I’ve ever soaked in – which means a lot coming from a beach snob like me.
Step 1: Pack light, which means storing any excess luggage
See if your hotel can hold onto what you don’t need.
Whether you’re continuing to Loutro or just doing the hike, packing light is the way to go. A large portion of the hike is downhill – and the more weight you have on your back, the more challenging it will be. Packing lighter could reduce your chances of stumbling or falling.
This means finding a place to store your remaining luggage. In my opinion, the best option is to visit the city of Hania before the hike and ask your accommodation to safely store your luggage while you spend some time away. Hania, by the way, has great appeal, including its dining scene and remaining mix of Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman and Venetian architecture.
On the practical side, Hania is a transport hub, making it a great setting-off point for the gorge. After your hike and beachside getaway, you can loop back to Hania to retrieve your luggage – and continue onward.
Step 2: Plan how to get to Omalos, the starting point of the hike
Whether you take public transit or a guided tour, be sure to set out early.
There are a few ways to get to Omalos, the most affordable option being the public bus. In the warmer months, regular public buses depart from Hania for the hour-long ride. It’s best to catch an early-morning bus, to afford enough time for the hike and a swim at Agia Roumeli before heading to your next destination.
If you want to leave the planning to others, travel companies also run guided tours of the gorge, including bus transfers. If you don’t need a ride back to your origin and want to continue onward to Loutro, be sure to let your guide know.
Step 3: Lace up your hiking boots
Take care on the gorge’s steep and narrow stretches.
The start of the hike involves a steep descent, which you’ll need to approach with caution.
When much of this is over, you’ll pass an ancient church and the old township of Samaria. You’ll note that the gorge’s tough, rugged terrain is softened by the presence of baby-pink oleander flowers.
The path narrows to the “gates of Samaria,” where the gorge’s walls soar to about 300m (984ft). Small wooden bridges zigzag to guide hikers over an impossibly clear stream. Crossing these is perhaps the most fun part of the hike.
Step 4: Book a ferry to Loutro ahead of time
You won’t want to miss this car-free charmer.
The ferries at the gorge’s end at Agia Roumeli will whisk hikers to several neighboring beach towns, including Loutro. If you want to visit Loutro, it’s best to book your ferry ticket and accommodation in advance to ensure you don’t miss out. Especially in the summer.
Part of what makes Loutro exceptional is that there are no cars; it’s only accessible via ferry or foot from the neighboring town of Hora Sfakion. Even if cars weren’t banned, it would be geographically impossible for them to reach Loutro, since the village is perched on the sea, protected by a dramatic 600m(1970ft)-high cliff face, with no roads in our out. I’d recommend staying at least two nights here to enjoy swims, fresh-caught fish and the chance to unwind.
Step 5: Get your return tickets in order
Head back inland by bus.
From Loutro, you can catch a ferry to the adjacent town of Hora Sfakion, which has buses traveling to Hania through the White Mountains that Samaria Gorge runs through.
If I could do it all again…
I might do it in reverse – though not the full length (that steep section would be intense, with people coming down!). Instead, I’d walk a shorter loop trail – starting at Agia Roumeli and heading in via the “end” of the gorge for a different, calmer experience.